50 Countries Project #3: Farewell Johnny (South Africa)

A professor, rendered inexplicably catatonic, is placed in an asylum to recuperate. There, he encounters a range of characters who all seem to embody archetypes – among them, a ranting Hitleresque figure in military uniform, a sensitive one-armed painter and a young woman with arrested development – and, with tragic consequences, falls in love.

I’ve seen more than one source refer to Jans Rautenbach’s Farewell Johnny (Jannie Totsiens, 1970) as “the Citizen Kane of South African cinema”. That is, to say the least, a puzzling assertion; the two films share few thematic concerns or stylistic approaches. If this descriptor is, on the other hand, simply a reference to Farewell Johnny‘s standing in comparison with all of the other works that have emerged from the country, then the South African film canon is a weird place indeed.

A film that might serve as a closer point of comparison is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Rautenbach’s protagonist more or less shares Elisabet Vogler’s condition, and in both films the asylum/retreat is a space in which reality seems to be suspended and identity is fluid. But where Bergman is interested in cutting apart a human being and seeing what lies within, Rautenbach appears to be scrutinising an entire society (Apartheid-era South Africa, or, more precisely, its white population – an Indian servant is the only non-white character in the film).

Such an approach is, inevitably, distancing. The asylum inmates here largely come off as grating caricatures, or, in the protagonist’s case, cyphers – which is a problem in its own right, but doubly so when the final act shifts into melodrama. There is nothing wrong, necessarily, with a character in a film being used as a metaphor; but it is unlikely that such a character will carry any emotional resonance – and Farewell Johnny is not nearly funny or sharp enough to function as pure satire.

This is not to say that the film is entirely without merit. The puppet sequence over the opening credits is mesmerising, and there is a boldness to the composition of some of the shots. But Rautenbach’s film ultimately feels more like a curiosity than a classic. There is, undoubtedly, a lot to be said for using art to examine a society’s pathologies, and the South Africa of 1970 certainly needed its bitter pills more than most. Farewell Johnny is, if nothing else, an acquired taste.

You can read more about my 50 countries project (and see the list of films and countries) here.

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